As the pace of change increases, we find ourselves, more and more, in unfamiliar situations. Different forces can push us into uncharted waters at different times in our lives. Yet at Protagion we urge our members to practise doing things they’ve never done in order to feel at home with the unknown. For us, elements of this are staying curious, consciously pushing ourselves, and embracing new experiences.
In the context of this belief, the focus of this post is on how to learn at the same time as demonstrating expertise. The risk of feeling insecure is high in new situations, but we must learn to embrace this feeling in order to keep learning and growing. Also, as we become more senior, we are less likely to have breathing space to learn and become experts before needing to demonstrate our understanding. The speed at which things evolve means that time out to build expertise is more of a luxury than a reality. Often too, learning is a result of interaction with others, and in order to be accepted into the group, we need to demonstrate some credibility first.
In previous posts, we found that successful people often have some consulting experience in their careers (e.g. Routes to the Top – Investment Management). So, we looked at what we could learn from management consultants, who find themselves in new situations regularly. At a high-level, the mindset of a consultant can be described as a problem-solving one, where they gather data about the specific problem, formulate solutions, test these with their clients, and then repeat the cycle many times to refine their proposals. This cyclical approach means that consultants learn a lot about their industry and the players within the industry within a short period of time.
But, this post is not only relevant to consultants. Others who need to learn and deliver at the same time include:
- contractors (IT, programme management, actuarial, marketing etc)
- existing team members allocated to a project
- analysts and professional advisors
- freelancers and
- others trying to learn something new on-the-job.
Like consultants, these types of workers have to adapt to a different setting with each new project or client and rise to dynamic challenges from the start. They also have to prepare carefully, signal their competence, understand the environment they’re in, and cultivate acceptance from others.
On Wednesday evening I attended a thought-provoking panel discussion on different aspects of Intergenerational Fairness, chaired by Paul Sweeting, and with Louise Pryor, Fiona Morrison and Peter Tompkins as panelists. The wide-ranging Q&A session was great.
One question that particularly stuck with me was from a newly qualified actuary within the Pensions specialism. He asked about the future for pensions actuaries, expressing his long-term career concern for those who have specialised in the pensions field, based on the challenging dynamics covered during the panel, including for example the shift from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution, low savings rates, sustainability and regular rule changes.
The responses from the panelists covered:
I'm not quite so sure that career transitions for actuaries are that straightforward... A number of PROTAGION's members tell us they feel typecast in their specialism (Life, General, Pensions, Healthcare etc), especially as they get more post-qualification experience. In contrast, transitions for actuarial students are far more common. Are there enough role models like Louise to show that these changes are indeed possible for qualified actuaries?
I also worry that it's more limited for those qualifying more recently. If I think back to the breadth of Specialist Technical subjects I was required to complete (Life Insurance, General Insurance, Pensions and Investments), versus the opportunity for current students to choose two from an admittedly wider list, do today's qualifiers have sufficiently broad specialist understanding to be able to transition? They do have a good generalist asset and liability understanding from the Core Applications modules though.
I'm interested to hear your views too, including from:
- actuaries who've considered and/or made a transition
- recruiters who've helped qualifieds move between specialisms
- coaches who've guided these experienced professionals through the change
Last week, I attended an informal get-together for psychologists to meet people with other professional backgrounds. It got me thinking about our professions, and how we feel about them. This gathering included mid-career practising psychologists, interns, coaches, business development executives, and university professors. One networking attendee joined an amicable circle I was part of, and introduced himself as on various boards, and with specific qualifications (which largely went over my head). In response we gave short summaries of our backgrounds, with mine covering financial services, people development, and mentioning (given the specific purpose of the get-together) that I’m not a psychologist. He immediately interrupted with “you shouldn’t be embarrassed about it”, to which I replied that I’m not. He felt that my body language said otherwise, to which others in the group indicated disagreement. The woman to my right sighed, leaned over to me, and said “there’s nothing wrong with your body language...”. It made me chuckle: a debate on body language at a gathering of psychologists…
This experience reminded me that we can be proud of our professions and qualifications, even to the extent that we rush to defend them if we perceive someone saying something negative about them… Our professions can be deeply ingrained into who we are, partly because of the significant personal effort and time commitment it took us to qualify, partly because of the status they might afford us, and partly because of the sense of community / connection they can provide us.
Generally professions include lawyers, engineers, medical professionals, actuaries, accountants, architects, economists, and psychologists, among others. ‘Professions’ tend to have a number of similarities:
The most well-known of the codes of ethics is the Hippocratic oath. Mostly, codes of ethics cover elements such as competence, integrity, and the promotion of the public good within the specific expert domain.
In my international work experience, I’ve found that different cultures can have different perspectives on the professions, with some viewing them as highly aspirational. Those cultures tend to view education as a privilege, and respect the effort and commitment required to become a professional. Others view professions more cynically, especially where past bad apples have tarnished its image by association. And, preconceptions of given professions can be limiting, appearing for example as the basis for jokes e.g. shark lawyers, introverted accountants and actuaries, or non-committal economists.
Preconceptions and stereotypes can sometimes discourage us from speaking freely about our backgrounds and accomplishments. One of the senior leaders in a business I previously worked in always introduced the members of my wider team as ‘actuaries’ even if they were actually from a legal or investment banking background (and she knew this). An expert in choosing her words to create specific impressions, she was encouraging others to apply their preconceptions and stereotypes. I suspect it was because she headed a different area, and wanted to emphasise how ‘technical’ the product team were, while she wanted her team to be seen as market-focused, commercial and extroverted. My personal preference is to see the individual, rather than the label, and consider the person as a combination of formative events and experiences. In my view, what someone chose to study is but one part.
It is a privilege to be a professional (especially given their rich history of thought leadership and social contribution), and I very much enjoy attending events that my professional bodies arrange. The variety of disciplines and thus career paths is also positive, with many opportunities to learn different things within them.
As sage parental advice conveys, a profession does indeed give you “something to fall back on”. Looking back on it, I’m glad that I chose that path, while also recognising now that it shouldn’t limit who we are and what we can do. And, some of the most inspirational people I’ve worked with changed direction by building outwards from their professional roots.
To what extent does your chosen profession contribute to your sense of identity? What aspects of your profession are you most proud of? And, what one thing would you change if you could?